Not too sure

Eliminating child poverty is about more than just increasing
benefits and getting parents out to work. The government knows
this, and from the outset has taken a two-pronged approach –
increasing incomes and, crucially, tackling the roots of
disadvantage and social exclusion through policy initiatives such
as Sure Start.

The third and hitherto neglected element of policy is child
care. After years of talk but little action the government is now
putting serious money into child care, and has committed itself to
establishing children’s centres incorporating nurseries open
10 hours a day, 48 weeks a year in each of the country’s
poorest 20 per cent of wards by 2006.

The plans have been given a qualified welcome. Everyone wants to
see more affordable child care in poor areas. But there are
concerns are that the new emphasis on increasing child care may be
at the expense of family support and community involvement.

At the heart of the matter is a worry that there just
won’t be enough money to do everything Sure Start is doing
now, as well as to provide child care. Every Sure Start local
programme has a ring-fenced budget of around £800,000 a year
for seven years, plus three further years of diminishing budgets.
So the trailblazer and round 2 programmes have two or three more
years of protected income. After that, they will depend on local
agencies for money. And unless they are made to, health trusts may
decide not to buy into the new model at all.

Professor Norman Glass, chief executive of the National Centre
for Social Research and former chair of Croydon Sure Start, fears
that Sure Start’s preventive agenda may be compromised. He
points out that for social services directors the first priority
will always be child protection. “Sure Start is beginning to create
something approaching a national safety net for supporting
families,” he says. “I think we’ll move back to the old
postcode lottery, where many areas don’t invest in

Stephen Burke, director of the Daycare Trust, disagrees.
“We’ve already seen a massive expansion of resources.
Ministers know that children’s centres are going to need
increased funding. They are committed to universal child care and
the question is how quickly can you expand provision.” Burke sees
the development of children’s centres as an evolution of
government policy aimed at supporting parents and investing in
child care. “They are complementary. Sure Start is the basic model
and children’s centres build on that.”

Not all programme managers are convinced. Margaret Boushel,
programme manager for Hartcliffe, Highridge and Withywood Sure
Start in Bristol is worried about what will happen once budgetary
control is passed to the local authority. She points out that the
outreach and community development work which is vital for engaging
vulnerable families is not a statutory responsibility. Yet unless
these families are drawn in, the whole point of Sure Start is
undermined. She says: “Building trust is critical. It’s hard
to build trust with more vulnerable families, but I think
we’ve been very successful. Families with children
who’ve been looked after or are on the at risk register use
our services along with everyone else in the area and get
additional support if they want it. They are involved in lots of
aspects of the programme, including its governance.”

Boushel fears that parent participation may have a lower
priority on the children’s centres agenda. She says:
“Participation is key to engaging parents. If that’s lost, it
may have an impact on outcomes for children.”

Paula Mead, programme manager for Bedlington and District Sure
Start in Northumberland, which covers former mining communities,
has reservations about the shift in emphasis to child care. She
says: “The government is attaching children’s centre money to
developing new integrated education and child care places. But we
won’t be able to support people accessing jobs unless we
retain a strong family support agenda. If you’re isolated and
unskilled with lots of issues in your life you’re a long way
from going out to work.”

Mead’s round 2 programme was one of the first to be
designated as a children’s centre and has its own nursery.
She sees few families moving into work because of the new child
care provision. She says: “Traditionally, this isn’t an
entrepreneurial community and there aren’t a lot of jobs. We
use Sure Start local programme grant to subsidise low income
families for a short period while they become established in work.
We also pay for places for children with needs as part of a package
of family support. Once our budget is mainstreamed it’s not
clear that this kind of subsidy will continue.”

There’s a sense that somehow, a subtle approach to
tackling poverty through supporting vulnerable parents has been
turned on its head. The emphasis now seems to be on providing the
child care and getting parents into work. Glass says:
“There’s been a shift in thinking from supporting the next
generation to supporting the present one into work.”

Jayne Meyer, programme director for Dover Sure Start takes a
different view. She sees the commitment to developing
children’s centres as a way of ensuring that Sure Start
service principles are embedded in mainstream provision. “We know
we can’t continue with the level of funds we have now,” she
says. “I see so much duplication of resources and at times
preciousness between professionals. At last we have a clear
statement of the way forward for Sure Start.”

Meyer is confident that the lessons learned from Sure Start can
be incorporated into the new model. She adds: “We mustn’t
lose the community voice in the new structures, but it’s
unrealistic to think you can always go with what parents want.”

On the other hand, there is a risk that progress in working with
communities may be lost in the transfer to the new, statutory-led
children’s centre model. There are reports that in some
neighbourhoods children’s centres are going ahead without
proper community consultation.

There are also concerns that the voluntary sector more generally
will be squeezed out. The Sure Start programmes which had the most
difficulties getting off the ground were often in neighbourhoods
lacking a tradition of close working relationships between local
authorities and the voluntary and community sectors.

Mary MacLeod, director of the National Family and Parenting
Institute, is concerned about the lack of clarity about the role of
the voluntary sector in children’s centres. She says: “I
worry hugely about the role of voluntary provision. We know that
parents like the kinds of services which the voluntary sector
provides and its way of working with the community. It would be so
easy to lose some of things which Sure Start and the
Children’s Fund projects have created.”

The government’s plans for children’s

By March 2006 children’s centres are expected to reach at
least 650,000 pre-school children in the 20 per cent most
disadvantaged wards:

  • 350,000 through existing Sure Start local programmes
  • 300,000 new children in children’s centres that are
    either developed from other existing provision or newly built.
    Children’s centres will provide access to the following core
  • Early education integrated with child care
  • Family support and outreach to parents
  • A base for childminders
  • Child and family health services.

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